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Review: Spike Lee’s ‘Oldboy’ Starring Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen & Samuel L. Jackson

Reviews
by Charlie Schmidlin
November 26, 2013 2:41 PM
13 Comments
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For a certain section of the audience walking into Spike Lee’s remake of “Oldboy,” the word “octopus” transports. It conjures up an unforgettable highlight from director Park Chan Wook’s 2003 original, and also one reason from many why an American adaptation should have remained a “what-if” scenario. At least Lee occasionally knows which battles to pick: when an eight-armed mollusk does appear—clung to the side of a water tank in a dingy Chinese restaurant—it stays there. As a visual in-joke it works, but we quickly realize the “Inside Man” director is more keen on those filmgoers without a grasp on its significance, and who are blind to the film’s later aberrant twists. Which, judging from the audible groans of disgust in our auditorium, may number more than a few.

That isn’t to say every frame of “Oldboy” courses with the joy of discovery—quite the opposite, in fact. At its center the film is tale of revenge, enacted by New York ad man Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) after a wrongful 20-year imprisonment. It's a rote procedural, and not a particularly compelling one at that. Where the story attracts meaning are the questions of retribution and blame that it raises and aside from a potentially unintentional commentary on obedience and submission in the set design and wardrobe, Lee largely fails to reach those. He thinks stripped-down means raw in this case, but really that approach only peels back the silly sketches of plot and characters that he’s exploring.

Though the first narrative film of Lee’s to be stripped of “Joint” status (the doc "4 Little Girls" didn't use it, presumably because of the grave subject matter), the film also recalls its director’s thumbprint straight away in style and subject matter. As Joe, after missing his daughter’s birthday to botch a crucial work deal, stumbles drunk down a street in 1990s New York, the camera fixes on his back in one of Lee’s signature dolly shots. Later, in Joe’s hotel room-turned-prison cell, news footage of 9/11, George W. Bush, and Katrina plays on a small TV screen—almost as though the three form a ritualistic Trinity required before Lee proceeds. By the time his frequent collaborator Michael Imperioli appears as Joe’s bartender friend Chucky, the trademarks unfortunately seem closer to crutches than motifs.

What Brolin seems, though, is devoted. During his prison stay, he cuts himself, masturbates frantically to exercise videos, and becomes a heaving mass of muscle and scraggly hair and beard—demonstrations of the actor’s physical investment but less so his emotional accuracy. Not that “insanity” is such a precise objective, but when every scene feels like the seventh minute of some experimental take of Lee and Brolin’s, you can sense when mannerisms enter into the equation.

Two standout fight sequences do manage to capitalize on that dynamic: one that fans of the original are expecting, and one entirely new brawl that is actually more effectively brutal. Not to say that the former hallway fight is mishandled—its one-take, two-level madness is a feat of choreography (if a little static) and technical skill—but the latter perfectly stresses Lee’s tone of sick humor and bone-crunching immediacy, a tone he often fails to achieve elsewhere.

Lee handles a similarly game cast of Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley, and Samuel L. Jackson, all performers clearly relishing their roles here. Only Jackson and Copley get the time to shine within them though. Playing Liz, a social worker who decides to help Joe locate his captor, Olson is severely wasted in her time on-screen, always bidding Brolin farewell with a tear or relaying exposition from the script by Mark Protosevich. The “I Am Legend” screenwriter (working from Garon Tsuchiya’s original Japanese manga) examines our current reliance on technology in the bed of film noir, and attempts to draw humor from Joe—stuck mentally in the ‘90s before his kidnapping—as he encounters new developments, like Google. For this crime thriller this approach is dramatic suicide: instead of a boots-on-the-ground investigation, Brolin just searches for his leads on the Internet. And why not use the mobile phone app Shazam to hinge a key plot point regarding a song’s identity?

It is not a coincidence then that the most noteworthy characters are those too villainous to be seen scrolling through an iPhone. Sharlto Copley and Samuel L. Jackson play two slices of operatic energy that save the film from becoming merely a notably glossy episode of “Law and Order: Hammer Crimes Unit.” Copley looms behind a posh English accent with a manicured physicality undone by scars across his chest, and the story behind those scars—captured in one crawling shot by DP and MVP Sean Bobbitt (“Shame,” “Place Beyond The Pines”)—truly unsettles with its unblinking chaos. Likewise, Jackson is gloriously wicked in his role as prison gatekeeper; a gruesome confrontation between him and Brolin simmers with well-written exchanges and gruesomely comical asides, while his yellow Mohawk and vibrant wardrobe of bright-red shirts and coats punches color into the film, both visually and narratively.

About that costume, though. While Lee has streamlined the themes of Park’s original and made them disappointingly bare, he brings up one new possible element. It is triggered by Jackson’s flowing red coat, and also a piece of set décor in Joe’s hotel room early on: a poster of a black man wearing a red concierge uniform, with the words, “What can we do to improve your stay?” pasted underneath.

The poster—like the octopus—at first appears a throwaway gag, but considering Lee’s mention of the Sambo character, a 19th century children's book character that morphed into a racial epithet to describe slaves, in his 2000 film “Bamboozled,” it points to perhaps an unspoken, disturbing depth in the film’s ideas of submission and its effects. The concierge in the poster materializes in Joe’s reality and mirrors his constant torture and oppression over wasted years, while Jackson’s Chaney heads up a group of largely faceless henchmen—all bound to a boss that keeps them indebted and stuck working within a prison, which isn’t too far from being imprisoned themselves.

It is an insight that emerges after the film though; too often during the narrative it plods along with an airless approach and reined-in performances. While Lee edges in enough unique elements to argue a second look at the brutal revenge tale, his lean, blackly comic result is transcendent only in fits and starts, stripping away much of its thematic and emotional heft and leaving one of the most frustratingly accomplished disappointments this year. [C-]

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13 Comments

  • MENTD | December 4, 2013 4:30 PMReply

    And no, this is not me bringing up race.

    It's me RESPONDING to Spike CONSTANTLY bringing up race,
    calling Clint Eastwood a racist for not putting enough black people in Flags
    of our Fathers or Iwo Jima, etc. - Spike consistently plays the race card.

    It's 2013. There are no races, only people of the Earth.
    Anyone without that view IS A RACIST.

    Spike's films would have gone nowhere and no one would like him was he not black.
    His entire popularity and success has been based on making shit that sucks terribly yet
    sells simply on the fact it was made by someone who is black trying to trick others
    who are black into thinking he has something in common with them simply because
    they carry similar genetic code. Ridiculous, sad and offensive all at once.

  • MENTD | December 4, 2013 4:12 PMReply

    Spike Lee is one of the worst, most over rated directors of our generation.
    He is a racist fool, playing on lowest mental common denominator types.
    "Spike is black. Let's support him because of it, even though his films suck."
    It's the same thing as all the Madea support.

    Wake up people!!!

    If you want to support a director simply because he is black then...
    SUPPORT A GOOD BLACK DIRECTOR!

    Antoine Fuqua is one of my favorite directors and has created two of the best
    inner city crime dramas ever made - Training Day and Brooklyn's finest.

  • Skingrief | November 29, 2013 1:51 AMReply

    WHY! WHY! WHY! Good director, great actors, and a re-write of an otherwise perfect film? Old Boy is a classic film. classic works of art are not to be touched or redone, they are there as ingenious lessons on the medium it's self! The original is such a film...it is so hard to find any thing to compare to it, so what? Are we to compare it to a piece of garbage remake? Another great example is Let The Right One In, another superb film that was remade for "lazy American audiences"...is it that studio executives think we can't read? Just as bad, is that this article does not mention the real problem is the perceived narrative translation from eastern to western audiences. Old Boy is the quesntisential revenge flick with brilliant "I never saw it coming twists." What is so hard to translate? Yes Japanesse films can be difficult because they are often dependent upon spiritual content, but this is a Korean film that deals with the conditions of humanity that few films have ever excuted in a thoughtful way. If the iHollywood system had this film made for monetary reasons they could have picked anything, had Lee direct, and the same stellar cast churn out a turd. But it truly become troubling that they are not using their resources to reproduce films that had moments of greatness and fill them out in to good films, to take ideas that were never fully realized and make them into something rather than picking films that define generes, films that are once in a decade experiences of the redefined brilliance of archetypes blended with vision. Spike Lee is at his best when the rage and humor are his, where he can throw in his very own references to support his vision. Brolin is a Director's Actor who can do great things when a director has their own clear vision because he fully commits to a role. Here neither are actualized because quite simply, it's not theirs. This film is not it's own film, it's a remake of a stroke of genius, and from the kind of brush that hits so perfectly it is not to be repeated. In doing so you have disrespected the Original, the medium, and all involved. Oldeuboi is a gift of a film, do yourself a favor and act as if this revisionist history never occurred and see the original...and not on Netflix where is overdubbed, on Blueray or DVD where the ambient sound is a character all on to it's self.

  • kristen | November 28, 2013 12:24 PMReply

    Um…Olsen's name in the movie was Marie, not Liz.

  • mike | November 27, 2013 2:03 PMReply

    and there is this http:/

  • Ae | November 27, 2013 9:15 AMReply

    Has there ever been a US remake of a foreign language film that hasn't sucked? Surely there must be exceptions to the rule but still the questions beg, why keep remaking them, and how come western audiences haven't yet learnt how to read?

  • ska-triumph | November 28, 2013 7:12 PM

    LET ME IN was equitable to LET THE RIGHT ONE in my IMHO.

  • jkaeq | November 27, 2013 9:43 AM

    The Departed?

  • alana | November 27, 2013 7:43 AMReply

    Really, that this sucks is true testament to Spike's ability to make bad movie after bad movie.

  • imani | December 4, 2013 12:49 PM

    If Quintin Made a remake of this film, it would have been gold. The Ring and the uninvited, and The grudge were the only good remakes from Japan. But I think it's time for Spike to retire.

  • oIHLo | November 27, 2013 1:34 AMReply

    Another correction: Park Chan-Wook's family name is Park, not Wook.

  • Mantia | November 26, 2013 6:01 PMReply

    Great review, but just a head's up, Bamboozled was released in 2000, not in 2004.

  • Franka@ | November 26, 2013 4:21 PMReply

    I knew this would suck.

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